NHL Preview: The Most Competitive Norris Race In Yearsby Carter LaCorte April 9, 2021 0 comments
One long withstanding complaint from hockey fans of all communities is how the Norris Trophy voting is handled. Generally, the defenseman with the most points ends up winning the award for defenseman, and actual defense is not factored in.
Last year, Washington’s John Carlson rode his 75 points to second in Norris voting. This year, something feels different. Finally, voters seem to have remembered what the Norris Trophy means, and that underly— oh no, is Drew Doughty back in the Norris mix?
one for the culture pic.twitter.com/qVul6tfQ6e
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) April 3, 2021
This season has brought us some new legitimate Norris candidates, and not the ones that we have grown out of, like Doughty and Carlson. So, let’s look at them, and what makes them so special.
Fox’s leap from finishing 4th in Calder voting in 2019-20 to legitimate Norris favorite in 2020-21 has been nothing short of spectacular. Rangers Head Coach David Quinn has trusted Fox a lot more, as his average ice time has increased by nearly six minutes, up to 24 minutes and 38 seconds a game. He is sitting on an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 57.52, leading the Rangers. It may only be 11th in the league among defensemen (minimum 400 TOI), but Fox also doesn’t play for a powerhouse like the Avalanche, who have the top three defenders in xGF% (more on them later). Also, Fox’s Game Score Value Added (GSVA), a stat created by The Atheltic’s analytics guru Dom Luszczyszyn, is 3.88, leading all defensemen.
Top five defencemen by projected GSVA
— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) April 7, 2021
Even when you look at your simple points scored, Fox should be the Norris favorite. He currently has 36 points in 37 games, tied for the NHL defensive lead, and he has played in two fewer games than the other number one guy, who happens to be the next player on this list. 31 of those 36 points are assists, which is a league-best for Fox. The Rangers may not be playoff-bound, but that should not hurt Fox’s Norris chances at all.
With seven goals and 29 assists for 36 points in his first 39 games, Hedman has put himself right back in the Norris conversation once again. If you look back up at the GSVA tweet, you will notice that Hedman is fourth among defensemen, at 3.08. He is still a beast on the ice, averaging over 25 and a half minutes a night. Hedman won the 2017-18 Norris Trophy, and finished third last year, although his Conn Smythe award was satisfactory enough for him. His xGF% is above average, but at 51.74% it is fifth among Tampa Bay’s seven main defensemen. Some of that could be a result of Hedman’s partner, Jan Rutta, who is last on the team blue line. He may not be the most impressive player in the mix, but Hedman is still a prominent Norris name.
While he is having a great season, McAvoy has not been a top-three defenseman, but he doesn’t have a teammate up there with him, like Hedman. That is because McAvoy has not had a stable defensive partner this year, mainly thanks to injuries. He has played at least 100 minutes on ice with Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril. McAvoy has been amazing on his own with a 57.12 xGF%. The only Boston defender close to that is Grzelcyk, who is slightly above McAvoy, and could be on this list if not for injuries. His 22 points do not jump out at you, but his 58.7 CF% should. McAvoy has been carrying an injured Bruins defense for a good portion of 2020-21.
These three have been grouped together as they are the trio of the Avalanche leading all defensemen in xGF%. It is also amazing how Girard is the most experienced of the group with 261 NHL games under his belt, and he is just 22 years old. Their xGF% goes (in order that they are written above) 62.55, 61.65, and 61.09, which are all spectacular. All three also have a collective xGA under 20, although Makar has only played in 26 games, so that could hold him back from winning the Norris. Toews, Makar’s partner, has 22 points with a 59.4 CF%, while has 25 points in those 26 games, so he is nearly a point per game player. Girard has worked with Toews, Ryan Graves, and Jacob MacDonald, and all three have worked, especially the pair with MacDonald, as they have a 69.73 xGF% together. Girard also has 30 points, tied for sixth in defensive scoring.
Even better than Toews and Makar, Pulock and Pelech emulate a pairing of two elite, Norris-level defensemen. Just imagine if they had another great defender a pairing below them. Oh no.
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) October 12, 2020
As of April 7th, Pulock actually leads defensemen in WAR, just edging out Fox. Pelech is not far behind, in third place.
Here’s the Defenceman WIns Above Replacement Leaderboard (April 7) pic.twitter.com/Nam7CEtF9t
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) April 7, 2021
They also are both sitting at an xGF% above 60. Both are great in their own end, but Pelech is a different breed. He has 51 blocked shots this year, which is actually a bit of a letdown after he had 83 in 38 games in 2019-20. Pulock is a much better offensive player, although somehow Pelech has two more goals. Pulock’s no goals and 13 assists are a result of bad luck. He has 86 shots, 26 more than Pelech, but yet no goals. Pulock has blocked 69 shots with 70 hits this year and should be on his way to four consecutive 100 hit seasons. It is highly unlikely that one of these two will win the trophy, but there is a good chance that the Islanders have two players in the top-five in Norris voting.
Best of the Rest
Even after all these names, there are still some pretty good Norris candidates. Jeff Petry and Dougie Hamilton have both had great seasons entering unrestricted free agency. Shea Theodore is still Vegas’ number one defenseman, even after Alex Pietrangelo joined the team, and he has 25 points this year. Norris voters who only care about points should, you know, do more research, but also looks towards Carlson, Tyson Barrie, and Kris Letang, who have racked up points this year. These voters have a ton of options, and it will still be very easy to mess this up. The moral of the story is to vote Fox, not Doughty.